Tom Dorrance: Faculty Spotlight

We are pleased to feature Dr. Tom Dorrance as our October Faculty Spotlight!
Dorrance profile pic
Dr. Dorrance began teaching at CSU as a Visiting Assistant Professor in August 2015. A California native, he received his B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001 and taught high school algebra before earning his M.A. in history at San Francisco State University in 2006. Dorrance went on to complete his PhD in Work, Race, and Gender in the Urban World at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. He regularly teaches courses in our Social Studies major, including HIS 303/503: Recent Social History in Spring 2016 which counts as a 19th/ 20th century course in the US history sequence.
Courses taught:
HIS 111: United States History to 1877 *
HIS 112: United States History since 1877 *
HIS 216: History of African Americans since 1877
HIS 303/503: Recent Social History *
HIS 311/511: Intro to Public History *
(*= counts toward SST major)
This is my first year in Cleveland. I grew up in the California Bay Area and have been moving steadily east throughout my academic career, starting with graduate work in Chicago and now teaching at Cleveland State. Before beginning my adventure in academia, I split my time between teaching high school algebra and playing music. I finally listened to my own high school history teacher and started my graduate studies at San Francisco State University. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, I earned my Ph.D. with a concentration in Work, Race, and Gender in the Urban World. For me, the messiness of history is also what makes its study so much fun. I fell in love with the arguments surrounding historical interpretation because they capture a complexity that I think is deeper and more complex than any single narrative describing change over time.
What are your primary academic research and teaching areas?
My initial interests revolved around social movements and grassroots politics in the United States, though gradually my work drifted into a study of labor, business, and the workings of American capitalism. I am currently working on a book that explores conflicts between reform organizations, business associations, and unions for control over New Deal programs.
How do you incorporate these interests into your social studies and/or history courses at CSU?
I find the study of work and capitalism provides a good framework for pulling together stories of cultural change, race and gender, and the growth of the American state. What excites me most about teaching history is when I can point to how those elements of contemporary life that seem most natural and fixed are in fact the products of a long process of conflict, negotiation, and compromise. I feel that there is something powerful that comes with understanding the present as something that is malleable and fluid. As such, my courses tend to unpack themes such as the history of liberalism or the politics of inequality over long periods of time to capture this dynamic of change.
How do you use primary sources, off-campus resources, or technology in your courses?
As a teacher, I see primary sources and technology as conversation starters. Often I like to introduce primary source material—print media, music, and video—before really giving the historical context, to see what students identify as the concerns and tensions in the source. At its ideal, this process allows me to then provide that larger context through discussion. I particularly enjoy the openness of visual sources and try to use images as often as possible to break up lectures. Finally, I really enjoy situating broader historical trends within the local environment. Teaching labor history in Chicago provided many opportunities for linking national and local. I am looking forward to learning more about Cleveland’s own fascinating role in the development of American politics and economics to incorporate that history into my classes. Some of the remaining homes from the old Millionaire’s row are not too far from campus.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching at CSU?
I really enjoy talking to students here, listening to their thoughts about the ways they’ve been taught history in the past as well as what they think about contemporary events. There is such a rich diversity of experience that it creates a fertile classroom dynamic. I’ve also been excited to see the enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity students bring to the classroom. I enjoy getting questions while I teach, and so far I have had plenty thrown my way.
What advice would you give a student interested in becoming a Social Studies teacher?
Embrace argument and controversy. I don’t think there has to be one “right” story to explain the past. I also find it particularly rewarding to look at the influence of historical debates on contemporary politics. The past is all around us, and I think looking at the way history is used in contemporary arguments demonstrates the power that comes from the stories we tell about the past.
Thank you Dr. Dorrance!